April 04, 2016
Arriving in the Royal Court theatre just last week was the latest play from one of the top theatre writing talents in the country! Following up his critically acclaimed run at the National Theatre with Pomona, could Alistair McDowall wow audiences once again with his psychological space-set domestic horror?
It’s a little odd to call X a horror as it’s difficult to accurately categorise. There are many moments of heightened drama interspersed with laugh out loud comedy, but it’s the horror of the piece that will make you sit up and take notice. This fear doesn’t permeate through the usual methods of jump scares and relentless gore, but simply through the reality of the situation which the astronauts are going through; they’re more than 4 billion miles from Earth, trapped in a space station near Pluto. The ship that was meant to pick them up hasn’t arrived and they’ve lost all contact with Earth.
That’d probably be enough for anybody to slowly reflect on the point of their existence and indeed, it’s more than enough for the astronauts to do just that. Will they all die here? On board this ship that was designed to be able to withstand decades in the wilderness? Naturally, these questions expose our own insecurities as an audience; how would you feel if you knew that the only people you’d ever see again were your colleagues? It’s an interesting situation and one that has been dealt with brilliantly under the writing, direction from Vicky Featherstone and the gorgeous sloping set and costumes that have been created by Merle Hensel.
The play is, to use a cliché, a performance of two halves. The first sets up the conceit and the world in which these characters inhabit. No year is given, yet there is always a focus on time and the idea that you can’t get back what was lost. Time moves differently when you’re so far away from home and this is a world you simply won’t recognise: meat is produced in a science lab, only a few trees remain on Earth and humans have long since colonised Mars. That being said, they still have Guess Who? The second half by contrast is completely disjointed as the characters struggle with time itself and the sheer enormity of being stranded for so long. And how long has it been? Nobody seems to know, memories become confused and even your identity is on the line.
All of this means that X exists in an existential vacuum where you can’t possibly comprehend everything that the characters must be going through. They’re a varied bunch; Ray (Darrell D’Silva) is the grizzled captain, Gilda (Jessica Raine) his emotional second in command. Then you have systems maintained by Mattie (Ria Zmitrowicz), technology from the chatty Clark (James Harkness) and geology from cole (Rudi Dharmalingam). They all chat to one another but make no mistake about it, they are colleagues, not friends.
There’s a lot left to think about in the play – just like there was in Pomona and Brilliant Adventures before it – and McDowall has crafted something that will no doubt polarise audiences as they watch. The first half is very narrative driven with non-linear elements, whilst the second half is like something straight out of a David Lynch-inspired Kubrickian nightmare. You won’t be able to avert your eyes as X takes hold. Although there are moments which perhaps didn’t quite work for me personally, it’s safe to say that this is a play that takes no prisoners (ha!) and I unlike anything you’ve ever seen on stage before. See it if you can.
X by Alistair McDowall runs at the Royal Court Theatre until 7th May 2016.
Set photos by Manuel Harlan.
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By Henry Fosdike